Billiards and Board Games

Café Sperlhof: An institution comfortable in its own skin

Board games at Café Sperlhof in Vienna’s 2nd District | Photo courtesy of Beisltour blog/Hans Leitner

My grandmother lived on the top of a big hill in Wales. She never had much money, but her simple house and garden were well kept. Towards the end, though, as her health failed, she let the housework slip a little, and the garden pleased itself. Things eased themselves into a comfortable state of disrepair; both my grandmother and the house were getting tired. “You’ll have to take me as you find me,” she’d tell visitors.

Café Sperlhof, nestled in the quiet side streets of the Second District, between the Augarten and the Karmelitermarkt, is of the same school of thought. The ‘A’ of the café sign is broken, and the view in from the street is obscured by scruffy net curtains, numerous signs offering billiards, board games and more, and the rampant cacti and yucca plants that overrun the window sills. Despite the introduction of a no smoking rule more than a year ago, it smells musty inside – like a cross between my grandmother’s house and a second hand bookshop. The latter is only to be expected – there are several tables stacked with used novels, for sale or exchange.

I take a seat in the corner between two precariously balanced columns of board games (they tower around the place like gnarled old trees) in battered boxes; everything from Trivial Pursuits and Monopoly to obscure titles such as Spontan, Zick Zack and Game of the Year. Above me, on the wood-panelled wall, is a faded, badly dog-eared poster of the Austrian national football team from 1992, and on a nearby shelf, an old television that seems not to have been in use for many years.

The waiter wears a sports jacket with a tie. His name is Heinz Sommer and he’s been the café’s owner for more than 20 years. As I order my second beer, I explain that I’m writing a story about the Café.

He smiles, but makes his excuses: “I’m sorry, I have not a lot of time,” he says, as he collects my empty glass. His words are offered apologetically, but with gentle assertiveness. He hands me a Café Sperlhof business card as a substitute for conversation and directs me to a website ( I get the impression that lots of enchanted first timers want to engage him in conversation.

I sip my beer to the sound of kissing billiard balls – a man in late middle age, wearing a shirt and tie, is practicing his cueing action on the blue baize of one of several brightly lit tables to my left. Nearby, six twenty-somethings are engrossed in a complicated board game that I’ve never seen before. They talk tactics quietly. In front of the bar, a man and woman in their seventies drink together and their occasional conversation drifts across the room. Behind them, the water pump of an almost nuclear-bright aquarium provides a constant gurgle, similar to that given off by cheap water features found in Indian restaurants and suburban back gardens.

There is a basic food menu (ham and cheese toast, chilli con carne and the like), but for those with a more immediate urge, a glass case beneath the bar offers bars of Milka chocolate, as well as retro sweets like ‘lipsticks’ and ‘double dips’. As I’m contemplating these, a man in his 30s or 40s walks in, hangs up his jacket, grabs one of the tens of newspapers near the entrance and slouches in a nearby booth as if he owns the place. It’s clear he’s done this hundreds of times. This is more of a living room than a restaurant. But even though I’m not a regular, I feel very comfortable.

I had been to Café Sperlhof before this visit. I stopped here for a (very good) coffee after stumbling across it on one of my first trips to Vienna. I remember being so struck with it – a curious relic to the old Vienna, I thought – that I took photographs, like thousands of tourists have no doubt done before.

But while Café Sperlhof may be quietly sliding into a state of comfortable disrepair, just like my grandmother’s house, it is no relic. You’ll have to take it as you find it, but it is going strong, like much of the vibrant Second District. This home from home is much more interesting than many of its upmarket counterparts.


Café Sperlhof
2., Grosse Sperlgasse 41
(01) 214 58 64

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